The inaugural season of Indian Super League has boiled down to a grand finale between the two clubs with the most football-crazy fans. The tournament has seen huge crowds for their home matches and some spirited performances from both the teams too. As Kerala Blasters lock horns with Atletico de Kolkata on Saturday, an electrifying clash can be expected. Both the teams had many ups and downs this season and surprisingly have beaten the most consistent teams of the tournament in the playoffs. Hence it could be a close contest between David James’s Kerala and Habas’s Kolkata at DY Patil Stadium, Mumbai.
Road to the finals
The team owned by cricketing legend Sachin Tendulkar was designated “the weakest and the oldest team” on paper before the start of the tournament. Kerala were not even expected to be in the top four. The first two matches were predictably bad for Kerala, as they found themselves at the bottom of the table. But Kerala did have the maximum shots on target and shots at the end of round 2. The team just needed to find the rhythm to win matches. Fortunately, an away draw against Kolkata gave Kerala a shot in the arm and and a revelation in the form of Ian Hume. The Canadian striker has been agile and his dribbling and finishing skills have been equally impressive. After their loss again to Mumbai, things were not looking good for the Blasters, but they rose up to the occasion magnificently and remained unbeaten for the next 5 games, with three wins and two draws. A major reason for this was the 5 back to back home games after just as many consecutive away games. A huge attendance was witnessed at Jawaharlal Nehru stadium and the atmosphere made it difficult for the away teams to deal with. A major setback was when Chennayyin FC beat the Blasters in front of a 62,000 fans. This turned out to be the first home defeat and things looked tough for Blasters to make it to the playoffs. But luck and team spirit proved to be of importance, as they went on to win a crucial match against Pune City FC courtesy of a free kick from their top scorer Ian Hume and also because of some brilliant performance from the veteran Sandip Nandy who was brought in after David James was injured in the match against Chennai. The playoffs saw them facing their southern rivals Chennaiyin FC and the first match at Kochi turned out to be the best match the team has played in the whole tournament. Three superb goals from Hume, Ishfaq Ahmed and Sushanth Mathew almost secured the place for them in the finals. But Chennai returned the favour with all guns blazing in the second leg. An aggregate of 3-3 led the game to extra time in which Stephen Pearson scored the decider in the 118th minute – a goal which broke Chennai’s hearts and which made thousands of Kerala fans erupt with joy.
Atletico de Kolkata
As a team owned by European giant Atletico Madrid, the hopes were high and many predicted them to be the champions of the tournament. They didn’t disappoint them as the team had the perfect start to the tournament. The team remained unbeaten for six matches and looked like the favorites to qualify for the playoffs first. The major success came through their ace striker Fikru. The Ethiopian had good strength and finishing combined with good acrobatic skills making him one of the most exciting strikers of the tournament. Their marquee player Luis Garcia along with players like Cavin Lobo, Baljit Sahni, Borja and Jakub Podany made their attack look tough to deal with. The defence partnership between Arnab Mondal-Josemi looked impressive too. But to everyone’s amazement the second half of the tournament trend out to be a nightmare for them. Including the playoffs they have just won 2 games in their last 12 matches which includes a win over North East and a win over Goa through penalties in the playoffs The team has just managed to score 8 goals in these 12 matches and things weren’t looking good for Habas and his team. Injuries for Arnab Mondal, Garcia and Fikru during this course made it tougher to get a win. But their good start made them cling on to the third place after they managed to get a draw in their final round match against Goa. They went on to face the same opponents again in the playoffs in which neither of the teams looked impressive. But it was Kolkata who kept their cool and progressed to the finals through penalties. Their Armenian goalkeeper Apoula Edel through his impressive saves has been a major factor for their progress especially in the second half of the tournament.
Team News and Tactics
Both the teams wont be short of confidence as they have beaten two teams who looked impressive in the league stage of the tournament. But still Kolkata hasn’t been that impressive for the second part of their tournament. Kerala Blasters main problem this tournament have been their inconsistency and this could be seen even during the playoffs. The team failed to replicate a performance that they put in the first playoff and at one stage it was looking like they may be knocked out of the tournament. Hence it will be the momentum and consistency that the two teams will look to improve when they face each other on Saturday. Both the teams has had injury woes and it could play a major factor in the finals. For Kerala their goalkeeper Sandip Nandy seemed to have pulled a hamstring last match but their coach Trevor Morgan has ensured that he will have a fully fit squad for Saturday. For Kolkata things weren’t looking good for Luis Garcia last match as he was substituted and was seen holding an ice pack. Their main striker Fikru may play in the finals but again the news about his injury hasn’t been out till now. There are even some gossips that there is a rift between the coach Habas and the Ethiopian striker. Kerala would miss Mc Allister and their defender Gurwinder Singh through suspensions. It would be a battle between the denfences of both the teams and Arnab-Josemi pair would be a tough wall to break into. Kerala will most probably go with both Hume and Chopra in the starting 11 as Milagres has looked less impressive late in the tournament. The Kolkata born midfielder Mehtab has looked impressive for Kerala in the later stages and might start in the first team along with Stephen Pearson. But the injury of Cedric Hengbaart will remain a major concern for the Blasters.
Kerala has remained unbeaten when they faced Kolkata in which they won one and drew one. But ISL has provided a lot of unforgettable and unpredictable moments and the teams will strive hard to be the first champion. Who will be the first champion? Lets wait and watch.